What is liberalism?

Whatever it is, there’s more to it than David Laws would have you believe.

I was irritated by a piece Julian Glover wrote in the Guardian last week and meant to blog about it. An excellent post by Stuart White over at Next Left gives me an excuse to do so belatedly.

Glover was upbraiding Andrew Adonis, whom he described as "a liberal shoehorned into a statist party for the achievement of political purpose", for daring to criticise the decision by the Liberal Democrats to enter into a coalition with the Tories. Adonis had described the coalition as "unprincipled"; Glover appeared to suggest that there was no philosophical basis to Adonis's attack:

The differences within parties have often been as great as the differences between them. Adonis, a former Lib Dem, knows that. His objection -- like the predictable complaints of those Scottish former leaders Kennedy and Steel -- is not that Clegg did a deal, but that he did one with the wrong side. It is striking how the most vocal Labour critics of the coalition are New Labour: as if they mourn being cast adrift in a party whose deeper instincts they know only too well.

Yet the Lib Dem leader got better and more reliable terms from the Tories than he could have [had] from Labour; and, more than that, he has formed a government of broad ideological coherence, which he could not have done with an interim administration led by Gordon Brown.

This is, at its core, as much a liberal administration as a Tory one, joined by a shared scepticism about the effectiveness and financial sustainability of the centralised state.

There's a rather narrow understanding of liberalism implied here, though it is one that is consistent with that of the Orange Book faction of the Lib Dems, who, in the persons of David Laws and Nick Clegg himself, now hold sway in the party (and, indeed, in the coalition). Stuart White offers an excellent summary of this strain of contemporary liberalism:

Their thinking rests on some definite, strong -- albeit rather unexamined -- philosophical assumptions. Reading someone like David Laws, for example, there is at times a clear sense that the free market produces a distribution of income and wealth which is a kind of natural or moral baseline. It is departures from the baseline that have to be justified. Laws and other Orange Bookers are of course not libertarians, so they are prepared to allow that some departures -- some tax-transfers/tax-service arrangements -- can be justified. (This is the sense in which they remain social liberals, albeit not egalitarian ones.) But the presumption, for Laws, is clearly for "leaving money in people's pockets".

White's most important point is that there are resources in contemporary liberal political philosophy for a much more egalitarian, redistributive vision -- a vision of social justice, in other words. The basic assumptions of Orange Book liberalism, White says,

run completely counter to one of the basic claims of contemporary liberalism as developed in the work of such as Rawls, Dworkin and Ackerman.

For these thinkers, the "free market" is simply one possible "basic structure" for society along with an indefinite range of other possibilities. It has no morally privileged position. So how do we choose which "basic structure" to have? Their answer is that we try to identify principles of social justice and then design a basic structure -- including, if necessary, appropriate tax-transfer arrangements -- to achieve justice so understood. On this view, taxation and "redistribution" are not invasions into people's pockets, a taking of what is presumptively already, primevally "theirs". Tax transfers are a way of ensuring that people do not pocket, through the market, more (or less) than they are genuinely entitled to. Tax-transfer schemes define entitlement; they do not invade it.

Simplifying a little, one might say that for these liberal thinkers, it is not the free market that is the appropriate, morally relevant baseline, but equality: it is movement away from equality that has to be justified, not movement away from a free-market distribution.

And, Glover's little lesson in history and philosophy notwithstanding, this is something Andrew Adonis understands very well; though he is less likely to invoke Rawls, Dworkin or Ackerman than the great "social liberals" of the early 20th century -- men like J A Hobson or L T Hobhouse. As Hobhouse put it in his 1911 masterpiece, Liberalism, "The 'right to work' and the right to a 'living wage' are just as valid as the rights of person or property."

Special offer: get 12 issues of the New Statesman for just £5.99 plus a free copy of "Liberty in the Age of Terror" by A C Grayling.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”